The Hard Problem

The Hard Problem: The New Concurrency

John Scott Tynes | 4 Feb 2010 21:00
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World of Warcraft's famed 40-man raids are an excellent example of proximal concurrency. Those are forty players working on the same overall team, in the same location, pursuing the same or at least related goals. In my former project Pirates of the Burning Sea, epic sea battles between two sides of 25 warships each are a regular event. EVE Online advises that players anticipating space battles larger than 300 ships should give advance notice to the devs so as to reserve premium server capacity. On consoles, the recently launched MAG for the Playstation 3 boasts 256-player battles.

Those are impressive numbers, but they're only two to three digits. Is that really as big as proximal concurrency gets? If you think of eBay as a game, its proximal concurrency is arguably in the millions, but the reality is that your realtime competition for a single auction is probably in the single digits - that's eBay's real proximal concurrency.

Examples of truly vast proximal concurrency are rare and require something of a rethink of what an MMO is, both in terms of space and in time. And that's the Hard Problem I'm tackling this time around: not a game design problem per se, but a problem in how game design is perceived. Calling eBay an MMOG is obviously a stretch, but it's not completely crazy; you could extend the metaphor by claiming that it's a dynamic-economy PvP MMOG that has finally solved the travel time problem. Anyone who has been outbid at the last minute knows that eBay is a for-real PvP experience, and just like in PvP MMOGs people use bots to enhance their competitive performance.

Let's look at two examples of truly massive proximal-concurrency games. The first is 1 vs. 100.

This is a Microsoft project available on the Xbox 360. (And in the interests of full disclosure, I work at Microsoft but I have better things to do with my time than clandestinely promote my employer's products via my column.) It's a game show in which, at scheduled events throughout the week, players converge to play a trivia game. While players are grouped into four-player competitive sessions, they are simultaneously competing against all players at once. Successful players become "the one" against whom all players are competing.

In August of 2009, Microsoft announced that 1 vs. 100 had hit a concurrency record of 114,000 players. Because all players are answering the same trivia questions at the same time and competing against each other for the same prizes, it's very fair to say that the game's proximal concurrency record is also 114,000. That's pretty staggering. Is it an MMOG? Assuming you've dropped the "RPG" from the end of that ungainly acronym then yeah, it's an MMOG, and it's maybe the biggest one in the world.

Except, of course, for everything Zynga makes. The creators of social-networking games such as Mafia Wars and the dreaded Farmville rack up tens of millions of players every day. Now I've done my time with Mafia Wars, and I'm not actually convinced it's a game at all; it's a giant progress bar that fills in faster the more you click on it, which turns out to be a powerful fantasy common to anyone who's ever copied files on a computer. I don't think calling Mafia Wars an MMOG is especially useful even as a thought exercise (and if you've read this column for a while, you may have noticed that I'm extremely fond of thought exercises).

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